Tag Archives: mri

Better Approach to Soft Tissue Injury

Musculoskeletal diseases, defined as injuries to the soft tissues, currently affect more than one out of every two persons in the U.S. age 18 and older, and nearly three out of four over the age of 65. Low back pain affects at least 80% of adults at some point, with an estimated annual cost of more than $100 billion. Trauma, back pain and arthritis — the three most common musculoskeletal conditions — are the most common reason for patient visits to physicians’ offices, emergency departments and hospitals every year. With the aging U.S. population, musculoskeletal diseases are becoming a greater burden every year.

A determination must be made if the pain generator is muscular or structural, and incorrect diagnoses can lead to inappropriate treatments and, in the worst case, unnecessary surgeries.

About 80% of healthcare and social costs related to low back pain are attributed to just 10% of patients with chronic pain and disability. This statistic suggests that improved interventions to reduce the recurrence of low back pain can underpin significant cost savings and improvement in patient outcomes.

The standard approach to managing soft tissue injuries is to obtain a medical history and perform a physical examination. Imaging or testing usually is not needed in the early phases of treatment. In most cases, the natural history of a soft tissue injury resolves without intervention.

There are excellent tools to diagnose structural abnormalities or nerve injuries. These include imaging studies, nerve condition tests and disograms. X-rays can be used to assess the possibility of fracture or dislocation. Nerve conduction studies may be used to localize nerve dysfunction.

But they are not adequate for soft tissue injury or functional assessments. MRI and CT scans, while excellent tests to evaluate structure, are generally static and not designed to assess muscle function dynamically. In addition, these standard tests all carry a high rate of false positives.

There is no magic bullet or one test that does everything. While many tests are good for what they are designed to evaluate, they are not appropriate to diagnose a soft tissue injury.

Enter electrodiagnostic functional assessment — EFA testing. The EFA is a diagnostic tool that combines and enhances five medically accepted tests: electromyography, range of motion, functional capacity evaluation, pinch and grip strength. The EFA is non-invasive and non-loading. The advantage the EFA presents over performing these tests individually is that it performs all tests simultaneously and in a dynamic fashion.

This equipment has a 510 (k) registration with the Food and Drug Administration as a Class II diagnostic device. Furthermore, the FDA has recognized in the intended use section that the technology can distinguish between acute and chronic pathology, is able to look at referred pain patterns and is useful with treatment recommendations and baseline testing.

Physicians encounter patients daily with complaints of injuries to the soft tissues, particularly the paraspinal muscles. In many cases, objective findings are obvious, but many patients may have injuries that are subtle but continue to cause symptoms. In other cases, the injuries may be less recent, and the physical findings may not be apparent. Direct palpation of soft tissues can, in some cases, reveal the nature or type of injury, but this manner of diagnosis relies on static testing. For some individuals, problems may only be encountered during activity. Measuring muscle activity during range-of-motion testing is difficult at best. The extent to which a patient exerts herself also presents a subjective bias with soft tissue injury.

Better outcomes will be demonstrated by using the correct tools to evaluate the underlying pathology. In Adam Seidner’s paper “Assessing disease and wellness in the occupational setting: Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment from wired to wireless,” he demonstrated that, when the EFA was implemented as a case management tool, it enhanced the level of discussion among treating providers, injured workers and claim professionals. The study demonstrated that medical and lost wage payments to injured workers and their healthcare providers were 25% lower in the EFA group, for an average savings of $10,000 per claim versus the control group. Most importantly, the average return to work was 213 days in the EFA group versus 275 for the control group, or an average of 62 days sooner. The EFA was able to provide better diagnostic information on soft tissue injuries and return the individual back to activities of daily living sooner. Better patient care leads to better outcomes.

The EFA results are further demonstrated in the paper “Musculoskeletal disorders early diagnosis: A retrospective study in the occupational medicine setting.” The study found EFA test results affected the course of treatment, improved clinical and functional outcomes, increased patient satisfaction and decreased dispute litigation. In fact, 98 of the 100 cases resulted in return to maximum medical improvement with no rateable impairment and full release to active duty. Only 2% of the cases were challenged, and 98% of those in the EFA control group returned to their pre-injury jobs. These cases were tracked over a three-year period.

The EFA-STM baseline program is just another example of better diagnostics providing better patient care. This book-end solution allows for the best care possible for the work-related injury. If a condition is not deemed to be work-related, the individual can still receive the best care and a quicker resolution.

The EFA does not replace the other, well-established diagnostic tests; it is simply a better diagnostic alternative for soft tissue injuries. All the tests can complement one another.

At the end of the day, when it comes workers’ compensation, the issue is providing better patient care. It’s a win-win for all parties.

 

Stepping Over Dollars to Pick Up Pennies

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is determined to establish regulation over excessive loads and charges built into and sometimes hidden inside 401(k) plans. The costs are known as basis points, called “Bps” (Bips) in the industry, and they represent hundredths of a percent. For example, a load of 60 basis points equals 0.6%, and 100 basis points equals 1%. The DOL’s logic is that trustees and plan fiduciaries are too often oblivious to the excessive costs built into the plan and the resulting reduction in the investment performance for the plan participants.

But why are we being distracted about 401(k) pennies when the real culprits have created a healthcare system where hundreds and thousands of excessive cost “Bps” are annually overcharged to plan participants and employers?

Where is the outrage over the lack of transparency for disclosing fees, charges, expenses and loads built into the healthcare system and health plans offered to employers by insurance companies and HMOs?

Why is no one demanding accountability for massive claim payment errors, overcharges, hidden charges and compensation, excessive fees, hidden spread pricing or medical errors?

Health plan fiduciaries are typically oblivious to the true costs hidden inside their plans in the same way they don’t understand the all-in costs of their 401(k) plan. The major difference is that healthcare waste can easily be 10 times greater than the “Bps” being scrutinized inside 401(k) plans.

Imagine if the plan sponsor was held accountable to a fiduciary standard when managing the health plan. Ignorance is not a defense available to a fiduciary.

How will you change the way you manage healthcare when the DOL’s Employee Benefit Security Administration declares that health plans are subject to 408(b)(2) regulations?

Do you know what questions to ask? Here are a few to think about. See if you know the answers. If you don’t know the answers, then ask yourself, why not? Are you going to wait until regulations mandate that you act in a prudent manner in the best interest of the plan and the participants?

  1. What is the claims payment error rate by your insurance company, health maintenance organization (HMO) or third-party administrator (TPA)? What’s the impact when 3% to 10% of plan expenses are errors?
  2. How much does spread pricing by the pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) cost the health plan participant?
  3. Which physicians are the bad actors whose practice patterns are more than 300% outside established medical evidence protocols?
  4. Which hospitals charge 1000%-plus above Medicare payment rates?
  5. How much did iatrogenic disorders cost the plan?
  6. What percentage of readmissions were preventable?
  7. How much are labs, urgent care, MRIs and Emergency Departments upcoding and overcharging the health plan? What happens when you are accountable because your health plan and participants are paying four to 10 times more for the exact same services?

Health plan court cases about violating ERISA and fiduciary standards are starting to attract the attention of the DOL. Plan sponsors need to change their focus and look at what is really happening inside their health plan(s) and the all-in costs of their providers, just like they are doing now with the pennies in the 401(k) plan.

The dollars you are stepping over will have a dramatic impact on the bottom line of the health plan and its participants. Be prepared in the not too distant future to manage healthcare to a fiduciary standard. But, what you should be thinking now is, why wait?

Electrodiagnostics: a More Powerful FCE?

My recent post on functional capacity exams (FCEs) is a great lead-in to considering another level of related technology. Let’s explore electrodiagnostics as arguably a more powerful arrival in functional exams.

First, let’s recap what quality means in a functional capacity exam: An FCE requires a process that is objective and consistent with the proper balance between specificity to body parts and sensitivity to critical indicators, including pain, range of motion and strength. An FCE must indicate illegitimate effort and attempts to “game” the test by subjects.

I submit to you that, the more a functional exam process can move away from human-tester interventions and totally separate testing steps, the closer it gets to nirvana. This construct is the essence of electrodiagnostics.

A routine FCE process involves various separate tests, including nerve conduction, range of motion and strength. Even with the most advanced equipment, this presents separate processes to assess for validity and to try and formulate into a whole-body issue. What if one test did all of this at once?

Contemplate the electrodiagnostic functional assessment (EFA), where a test subject performs a single test sequence on specialized EFA equipment that measures multiple factors. This provides instant objective credibility. Stated simply, combined factors of muscle strength, pain and range of motion and others need to align in a logical pattern as depicted by computerized readout, or the subject is immediately shown as self-limiting his capability.

The EFA is arguably more accurate than the common FCE in assessing work capacity. EFA has also been proven useful in more specific applications, such as determining the need for hardware removal in post-surgical cases with alleged recurring pain problems.

Consider further that, because the EFA is such a consistent test, it is highly credible as a comparison to prior baseline. The EFA used as a base-line test at time of hire can be saved as a data file without opening until an employee might have an alleged injury at some later period. At such occasion, a new EFA can be performed to compare with the baseline to see what, if any, alleged changes in capacity and pain threshold have occurred. This definitive comparison has held up in court cases, making the EFA evidence as worthy as an MRI would be in comparing pre- and post-injury pictures of a joint or body part.

Quick Tip: Learn More About EFA and the Possible Application to Your WC Claims

– Google “electrodiagnostic functional assessment” to review white papers and scholarly details around the EFA and its applications and case studies.

– For more information, search out Emerge Diagnostics, which has pioneered the application of EFA and which is making efforts to bring EFA to the forefront of medical and legal use. I do not promote specific vendors in “Quick Tips,” and this article is for informative purposes only. However, the EFA is currently a sole-source situation, and reviewing the studies and successes of Emerge Diagnostics is of educational benefit.

– If you want to be cutting edge, do a trial. Pick a WC case or two that is stalled without adequate determination of disability, causation, apportionment or need for surgery, etc. Work to get an EFA entered as evidence and see if the case can turn.

– If you do try EFA, let me know your results. I would like to continue related reporting on this and see how much future influence EFA might have on the larger WC landscape.

A Better Way to Diagnose Back Pain

Neck and back disorders account for an estimated one third of all work-related injuries in the private sector. In only about 5% of all cases is back pain associated with serious underlying pathology requiring diagnostic confirmation and directed treatment, yet magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is, controversially, often used for diagnosis. New technology can specifically diagnose muscle-related back pain and produce better outcomes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, back pain is the single most common reason Americans seek medical attention, and a U.S. Department of Health study showed that managing this type of health disorder costs $850 billion annually. About 20% to 40% of the working population is estimated to experience back pain at some point, with a recurrence rate of 85%.

The majority of back pain comes from musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which are treatable through medication and physical therapy. MRI is frequently used to diagnose back pain, yet it is overly sensitive in identifying the cause unless it correlates with an objective clinical exam. European Spine Journal ran an article in February 2012 that found that a considerable number of cases of lumbar disc herniation (HNP) and spinal stenosis that were diagnosed through MRI may have been classified incorrectly. MRI is overly sensitive in exposing structural abnormalities of the spine, but not specific enough to diagnose accurately the cause of the back pain. Even though MRI imaging is commonly used to diagnose the cause of back pain, it is costly, ineffective and contributes to overuse. In fact, lumbar spine scans have risen dramatically in recent years and account for about a third of all MRIs done in some regions, despite the poor correlation between its findings and clinical signs and symptoms.

In addition, there are at least two studies that have been conducted to assess MRI findings in patients without back pain and that have raised concerns. In 2001, Spine published a study of 148 patients; all were asymptomatic, yet an MRI scan showed that 83% had moderate desiccation of one or more discs, that 64% had one or more bulging discs and that 32% had at least one disc protrusion. The second study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, found that only 36% of 98 asymptomatic subjects had normal test results from an MRI.

The evidence indicates that it is common for patients who experience back pain to have abnormal MRI scans, regardless of their condition. Spine surgeons, knowing that MRI can be overly sensitive and non-specific in diagnosing back pain, also use discography, a provocative and invasive test, to attempt to accurately pinpoint the cause of pain. In reviewing many studies of this tool, it is clear that even discography can be overly sensitive and often inaccurate in identifying the cause of back pain and in predicting the outcome of surgery. In addition, because it is invasive, discography can actually contribute to further injury in certain patients. Imaging diagnosis for acute back pain often leads to surgery, and complications from unnecessary surgery can prolong back pain or lead to permanent disability.

Because costly imaging studies often fail to produce positive health outcomes for patients with back pain, X-ray, MRI and CT scans should be used primarily for patients with neurogenic disorders or other serious underlying conditions. Because the majority of back pain is musculoskeletal in nature, the primary tools used to diagnose back pain are ineffective.

What is needed is a tool that effectively diagnoses a musculoskeletal disorder. Electrodiagnostic Function Assessment (EFA) is an emerging technology that is a non-invasive and safe diagnostic device registered with the FDA. It can distinguish between spinal, neurogenic and MSD conditions, which can greatly help physicians reach a specific diagnosis. This is especially true in terms of workplace injuries, where MSD conditions are prevalent and difficult to diagnosis and treat, given that the complaints are often subjective.

The following are two case examples where EFA technology, in combination with a neurosurgeon’s evaluation, was used to make accurate diagnosis and treatments:

In the first case, a 34-year-old patient sustained a work-related injury from repetitively using an air-powered grinder. As a result of a court-ordered independent medical exam (IME), the patient went to a neurosurgeon with complaints of bilateral, radiating neck pain and numbness in his right hand. After undergoing an EFA examination, it was found that his resting readings were within normal limits for all muscle groups evaluated. The EFA did indicate non-significant spine and muscular irritation, with chronic muscular weakness. The patient then underwent an MRI, which was abnormal, showing diffuse stenosis but no herniated discs or neural impingement. The IME doctor deemed he was not a surgical candidate and recommended treatment with conservative, site-specific physical therapy and muscle relaxants. The EFA and neurosurgeon prevented unnecessary surgery and were able to help with appropriate care to get this case satisfactorily closed.

The second case involved a 30-year-old mechanic who sustained a work-related injury, straining his neck while opening the hood on a semi. The EFA revealed no muscular irritation, but spinal pathology revealed an issue in the neck area that could be clinically significant. In addition, the EFA findings indicated acute neck pain, increased curving of the spine and loss of range of motion. In this case, the IME neurosurgeon requested an MRI, which confirmed the findings of the EFA examination. The MRI further showed a herniated disc consistent with the patient’s symptoms and exam. The patient failed physical therapy, and appropriate surgery was recommended. The patient underwent surgery and had an excellent outcome.

In both of these cases, the administering physicians were able to make exceedingly accurate diagnoses by having the correct tools available to them. This would not have been possible without the assistance of the EFA. By using the appropriate diagnostic tool, each physician was able to render a more accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment, which not only assisted the patient but helped to lower healthcare and workers’ compensation costs.

The use of MRI or other imaging technologies alone in diagnosing causes for back pain can be misleading and inaccurate in localizing pain generators. However, a more accurate diagnosis can be made when used in conjunction with the findings of EFA, so that appropriate site-specific treatments can be provided, leading to better patient outcomes and improved healthcare.

The authors invite you to join them at the NexGen Workers’ Compensation Summit 2015, to be held Jan. 13 in Carlsbad, CA. The conference, hosted by Emerge Diagnostics, is dedicated to past lessons from, the current status of and the future for workers’ compensation. The conference is an opportunity for companies to network and learn, as well as contribute personal experience to the general knowledge base for workers’ compensation. Six CEU credits are offered. For more information, click here.

 

Comment from Brent Nelson, Area Medical Director/Medical Director Occupational Medicine AZ at NextCare Urgent Care:

Very interesting article. As a physician treating and managing providers who treat work related injuries, I am often surprised at the number of referrals I see for advance imaging for back/neck pain. I was trained in an industrial athlete model for treating musculoskeletal injuries and one of the key points in the model is that an MRI or other advanced imaging should only be ordered to confirm a diagnosis, not find one. When this method is employed, the use of the imaging is less, and the findings are usually accurate and directly related to the complaint.
When an MRI is ordered simply for back pain that is not responding to treatment as well as expected, and the provider does not have a clear idea of what the problem may be, ambiguous findings may serve only to muddy the waters and increase the cost of treatment and possibly even result in unnecessary procedures. A bulging or ruptured disk without nerve impingement, annular tear, facet arthropathy, etc. are findings that may exist in asymptomatic populations, and may not be the cause of the pain.
A very detailed and thorough examination should always be performed at each visit, and this coupled with a detailed history should lead to an accurate diagnosis.
Quality of physical therapy must also be assessed when patients do not return to baseline as quickly as expected. Is the patient being treated by a physical therapist with experience in sports medicine? These PTs tend to have a better outcome for back and neck pain. Is there an indication for kinesio taping? Would an IFC/stim unit help breach a plateau? These are all considerations in treatment that may help with resolution prior to an MRI.
And again, an MRI should be ordered to confirm a diagnosis, and is most often indicated for a persisting radiculopathy or for an injury that may have resulted in an acute facet injury (not the same as degenerative changes in facet joint).
Simple XRays when conservative treatment begins to fail can give hints as to underlying degenerative issues which mean patient will take a little longer to return to baseline, and help prevent advanced imaging being ordered prematurely.
In short, the physical exam should give a good physician an idea of the problem and advanced imaging ordered only when one wants to confirm a suspected diagnosis.
The importance of knowledgeable physicians and therapists working in collaboration, and involving the carrier during the process, is often overlooked (and often times hard to find). The majority of the time, the patients answers to questions and an appropriate physical exam will give one the answers to the questions about origin of pain and indicated treatment.

tomecek

The Truth About Treating Low Back Pain

There is overwhelming medical evidence that many diagnostic tests, treatments and surgeries for low back pain are ineffective and waste many billions of dollars a year in the U.S. alone. Yet treatment appears not only to be continuing but seems to be growing and becoming more aggressive. The aggressive treatment of low back pain has become epidemic.

Medical studies on the problem of low back pain were widely reported in the mainstream media in 2007 and 2008. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other national publications like Time magazine reported on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study that said Americans, “were spending more money than ever to treat spine problems, but their backs were not getting any better.”

The study documented common mistakes doctors make when treating back pain, including:

  • Ordering excessive X-rays , MRIs and CT scans
  • Performing invasive surgery too soon
  • Failing to educate patients about surgical alternatives
  • Failing to address underlying mental health issues

Also released in 2007 was The State of Health Care Quality report published by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). It stated, “back injuries often undergo aggressive treatment when less costly and less complicated therapy may yield similar or better results.”

The NCQA report said that the vast majority of patients with low back pain have no identifiable cause of their symptoms and that less than 1% of X-rays provide useful information regarding the diagnosis of low back pain. Similarly, MRI and CT scanning usually fail to shed light on the causes of low back pain, except when there are red flags such as trauma or indicators for specific diseases. The authors stated that, “Needless tests and procedures that provide no real benefit to the patient can’t do anything but harm.”

The JAMA study also noted the widespread use of needless testing and found that 25% of the patients covered by private health insurance had an inappropriate imaging study, costing, in the aggregate, billions of dollars each year.

There is a wealth of medical evidence that most back and neck pain should be treated sparingly. An editorial in Spine Journal suggested that more than 200 treatments for chronic back pain are currently available in the clinical marketplace and that many of those “do not have a definitive track record in scientific studies.”

The authors of the JAMA study concluded: “If we keep our diagnostic and treatment efforts within well-proven limits, and emphasize the importance of activity and self-care, we suspect we would see better outcomes.”

Yet the total number of some spine treatments — e.g., spinal fusion surgery, spinal injections and the prescription of opiates — has skyrocketed in recent years, according to medical researchers.

There are many potential reasons for this spurt in back treatments, including the heavy commercialization and direct consumer marketing of treatments both old and new. It is hard to read a newspaper, watch TV or surf the Internet without seeing a commercial pop up for the latest treatment for low back pain.

Obviously, there is a lack of definitive evidence regarding many popular treatments, which allows them free rein in the marketplace before the risks and benefits can be scientifically studied and documented.

The JAMA study stated that 60% or more of initial back surgeries have successful outcomes. I am pretty good at math, so that means 40% DO NOT!  The study’s authors estimated that the 40% equates to 80,000 “failed back surgeries” a year.

The researchers also observed that the surgical success rate drops to 30% after the second surgery, 15% after a third and 5% after a fourth. The authors believed that many patients were under the care of physicians, “who are unfamiliar with the conditions leading to back surgery, the types of back surgery available and the best approaches to diagnosis and management.”

The annual medical cost to American businesses because of low back pain was estimated to be $90 billion in 2008.  This does not include the cost of related workers' comp or disability benefits, which also are in the billions, nor indirect costs such as lost productivity.

The medical studies have confirmed what I have known and studied for the past 33 years: Much of the money spent on healthcare — approximately one-third — is wasted on medically unnecessary and potentially harmful procedures.

What has changed in the treatment of low back pain since the release of the studies in 2008?

My bet: Not so much.

In fact, some medical researchers have stated the situation has gotten worse, not better, and that they have not been able to keep up with all the latest trends and back treatments available today.